By Hastings Wyman –
The Donald was not the only come-from-behind celebrity with no political experience who rose to power in the 2016 elections. In Louisiana’s 3rd District (Acadiana), voters elected Clay Higgins (R), 55, an outspoken former sheriff’s captain making his first bid for political office over Scott Angelle (R), a 30-year veteran of public service. “It was a given that Angelle would win,” says Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge-based pollster. “Everybody was just shocked” at Higgins’ victory, says another longtime observer ofPelican State politics.
Higgins made his name by making anti-crime videos in which he called out criminal gang members by name and showed their mug shots, videos that quickly went viral and made him a national celebrity with the nickname, “the Cajun John Wayne.” Throw in Clint Eastwood and Donald Trump for good measure, and you have some idea of Higgins’ appeal. Or if you want to see for yourself, go to YouTube and type in Clay Higgins.
In one of his videos, Higgins dismissed the idea that his stance was racially motivated, pointing out that, in the background of his video, “standing next to every cop is a leader in the black community.” Joshua Stockley, associate professor at the University ofLouisiana at Monroe, says the contest was about “white Republicans versus white Republicans. There is no significant evidence that race play a role in this contest.”
What kind of splash Higgins will make in Congress isn’t clear. “A lot of people in Louisiana don’t know him,” says Pinsonat. “But politicians, elected officials and politicos were suspect” in 2016. “He may turn out to be extremely popular. He’s got to get up there and come back” with a record. “We’ll just have to wait and see.” Another GOP insider, however, says Higgins “will be quite something else when he gets up there.” And still another Louisiana observer says, “It will be interesting to see how he turns out (in Washington)… Will his style endure?”
Higgins has said he will seek assignments on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee, which would fit with the major presence of oil and gas exploration and production in his Southwest Louisiana district. But don’t be surprised if he takes center stage against crime.
In the run-up to the Dec. 10 runoff, polls showed the race was tied. But in the final vote, Higgins won by 12 points – 56% to Angelle’s 44%. The vote was substantially less than the 68% turnout on Nov. 8; in the runoff, it was 28%. But given that fewer voters usually show up for runoffs, it was noteworthy that Higgins’ supporters came out in larger numbers than the GOP establishment could turn out for Angelle.
Angelle has a 30-year career in public service and currently chairs the Public Service Commission. In 2015, he finished third in the bitterly contested gubernatorial contest. In that runoff, Angelle refused to endorse Republican David Vitter, who had run harsh negative ads against Angelle, which contributed to the election of Democrat John Bel Edwards, angering many Vitter supporters and GOP-loyalists.
“There is internecine warfare” going on in the Louisiana GOP, says a longtime participant in the state’s politics (R), with some GOPers calling Higgins’ victory over Angelle “Vitter’s revenge.” Indeed, Vitter’s former chief of staff ran a super-pac that backed Higgins. In addition, state Attorney General Jeff Landry (R), while he made no public endorsement in the race, was reported to have worked for Higgins behind the scenes. So in addition to his populist persona, Higgins did have some political muscle in his corner.
In addition, like Trump, Higgins used social media to offset Angelle’s larger war chest. Due to his anti-crime videos, which went viral on social media and got him on national television, he was already a media celebrity when he announced. His campaign staff videotaped and edited his speaking engagements, then posted them on the internet. He ran “a very Trumpian campaign,” says one Louisiana insider. Stockley notes, “The voter who was more likely to support Donald Trump was likely to be a supporter of Clay Higgins.”
The 3rd District is based in Acadiana – Cajun country – and includes the cities ofLafayette and Lake Charles. Angelle ran better in the urban centers, Higgins in the rural parishes. The congressional seat is currently held by six-term US Rep. Charles Boustany (R), who stepped down to make an unsuccessful run for the US Senate.
Like Trump, Higgins has some personal baggage – allegations of not paying child support, etc. – but also like Trump, Higgins supporters were willing to overlook such factors as they pursued their major goal: Sticking it to The Establishment.
In one of his videos, Higgins says about going to Washington, “I’m descending into the belly of the beast.” Stay tuned.